On External Feedback and the Relentless Inner Critic

0239-old-man-son-ass

Every time I’ve started a blog post in the last month, I’ve felt profoundly guilty about not working instead on my dissertation, or academic articles, or stories for publication. I want to be so much better at this mystical work/life balance I hear so much about, but until I am, I have to accept that I’m not going to be able to juggle everything, and some activities are going to fall to the wayside.

To this end, the above image comes from the Aesop’s story dearest to my heart, and most vital to my experience as a doctoral candidate. I’ve joked a great deal about getting a tattoo to symbolize the lesson it embodies, but for me, any story I could get someone to depict with ink-on-skin would make a better story as ink-on-paper (or darker pixels on light). The version of this tale in the Harvard Classics edition reads as follows:

A MAN and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor Donkey of yours—you and your hulking son?”

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the Donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the Donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:

“PLEASE ALL, AND YOU WILL PLEASE NONE.”

This story has different meanings for me in relation to academic and personal (fictional) writing. Last week, I received my first feedback from the last of my committee members, and had a good chuckle over how much each member’s suggestions and interpretations differed. This was to be expected, of course, since each professor is their own person, and their critical intersections with my research vary in turn. The trick will “simply” be to find the right balance between all their competing suggestions–a task I am happy to put off until my final two chapters are drafted. As with my brief stint in the playwriting field, for my PhD programme I am literally writing “by committee”–and as much as I detested that approach when it came to playwriting, I grudgingly recognize the importance of such daunting peer-review in the academic realm.

However, this approach could not be further removed from how I (happily) write fiction, and engage with critical feedback therein. Charlie Jane Andrews of io9.com recently posted a pleasant article on this theme, “How to Deal with Harsh Criticism of Your Writing,” but while she offers excellent suggestions to meet the challenges of ego as a writer, I find that my hang-ups tend toward different extremes.

I’ve written before, for instance, on the sheer privilege of being reviewed at all. Not all paying venues get reviewed, but many of my sci-fi stories still fall Lois Tilton’s way in Locus Magazine, or into the hands of any number of reviewers for Tangent Online. Tilton’s comments on my work to date have ranged from flat-out dislike to lukewarm praise, but as someone who thoroughly enjoys critics who have no qualms panning a work, I therefore find her commentary a delight every time. If I ever write something she sees fit to recommend, I will take that as a real accomplishment–and in the meantime, I treasure the insight her reviews offer into how readers with no investment in me as a person tend to receive my writing.

Occasionally, too, this means I get to see my growth as a writer spelled out over time. For example, Tilton and a reviewer from Tangent Online both used the same descriptor in the vicinity of “Live from the Air Chair” (Analog, September 2015). As both considered the work to be “competent”, that tells me a great deal about my next steps as a writer. The writing’s probably fine unto itself, but my story clearly lacked the “oomph” needed to make its reading more memorable. That’s a great working note!

Another meaningful review came from the F&SF forum, where in the past I’ve experienced the most disarming feedback to date, after making the mistake of introducing myself and talking about the piece I’d just published. (Many SF&F authors do on that forum, so it seemed kosher at the time, but–never again!) The Analog story in question was treated harshly in that forum for reasons I hadn’t expected; I had an all-female crew of astronauts being interviewed en route to a doomed Mars colony, but I still didn’t anticipate that they’d be read as sex workers in a deeply pejorative sense, or that the historical counterpart I opened with–the “filles du roi” who make up a strong component of Canadian history–would be treated the same. This is the only time negative feedback has actually shaken me, because it exposed me to some pretty ugly, yet perfectly naturalized views about women among readers of SF&F. Recent events in the SF&F community have prompted me to recognize that this is just par for the course, but it leaves me squeamish all the same; I much prefer being told that people hated the writing style for that piece.

In any case, an F&SF-forum reviewer this time around made a tremendously useful comment; to her, my latest Analog story was “well written, [with a] good plot[,] but it felt like a middle chapter of a novel which I found annoying.” Tilton similarly felt that the action she most wanted to see–the initial break-up between main characters, and the resolution of the main conflict–happened off-screen. These were choices I made consciously (one, to start the story in medias res; and two, to keep the protagonist firmly in anti-hero mode, as a dude who just wants to play and make music), but my intentions don’t justify diddly-squat if the follow-through still leaves the reader feeling bored or left out.

(Moreover, I’ve been inching into long works over the last few months, with novellas ranging from 13- to 33,000 words currently in submission queues, so the quest for a proper longer project is clearly upon me. This reviewer just confirmed that sneaking suspicion, so hers was wonderfully motivating criticism.)

Put simply, my real hang-ups lie elsewhere: in submission queues, where all manner of superstition comes into play. Have I been accepted by a given magazine before? Yes? Then for some reason I take every subsequent rejection much harder than I otherwise would have–as if my “fraud” as a writer was finally recognized by the magazine’s most excellent editor, after any number of fluke successes. Recently, I’ve been trying to overcome this nonsensical worldview with increased submissions to places that leave me terrified in this bizarre way, but there’s still more work to be done.

Or what about unconquered markets that have offered very kind rejections? Surely these should just encourage me to submit more work, right? Hah. No. After receiving the warmest of praise from F&SF‘s C. C. Finlay, in a long rejection letter for a work he held onto for three months (and which will be published now by GigaNotoSaurus at year’s end), I actually found myself afraid to send him another piece. I will rectify this bizarre situation by summer’s end, so help me! But the whole process has left me with some surprising insights into the silliness of my character.

Neil Gaiman once wrote about criticism, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I find this to be far less true with academic writing, where I essentially have a team of editors helping me produce the best possible scholarship; where the pressure to complete my degree in good standing (that is, in a timely fashion, with job prospects!) makes despair a relentless part of the critical process; and where my greatest challenge lies in trying to accommodate so many informed opinions without losing my own voice and direction.

But for personal writing?

To me, fiction is, at its best, a conversation mostly with people I’ve never met, and who will only ever really know me through what they see upon a given page. This weird state of affairs is thrilling for me; I look forward to encountering new voices in the process, I enjoy the test of my ideas that emerges when I set a given labour-of-love before an editor or audience, and I relish the blunt input of people whose loyalties will never lie with the oh-so-easily-bruised ego of an individual writer.

Suffice it to say, I know I’m still so very much in process, with my best work hopefully still ahead. But that doesn’t stop me from shooting myself in the foot from time to time, or otherwise giving over to feelings of futility and despair. The further I advance in disciplines that value criticism as highly as academia and publishing do, the more I need to remember that all feedback has the potential to push a body forward. Certainly, the world is rife with impediments to progress, but the strangeness of our heads also plays a dangerous role in ensuring that any external criticism we might receive–praise and condemnation alike–has the power to hold us back.

Not today, brain. Not today.

The Inability (and Necessity) of Art to Speak for the Heart

Near the end of Act II, Scene 2 in Stratford’s 2015 staging of Hamlet, Jonathan Goad gives voice to lines that–troubled as they are–helped me identify a cause for recent feelings of defeat. (And yes, I’ve had some successes as of late, including two new publication credits, but emotions are recalcitrant beasts.)

I should touch, of course, on the production briefly, if only to establish context for my reaction. Stratford’s 2015 Hamlet is a sleek, minimalist affair of black monoliths, fog machines, lanterns, and loosely modernized military dress. Its greatest strength lies in a fully realized supporting cast: Geraint Wyn Davies plays Claudius as eminently reasonable and self-aware (for a murderer and usurper!), while Tom Rooney’s Polonius wrings every possible laugh from his lines, proving as loving a father as he is foolish a man.

Hamlet and Ophelia are less consistent in their performances, though this seems more an issue of direction than acting. Their “get thee to a nunnery” confrontation and subsequent interactions at the play-within-a-play turn on disjointed body language, but much of Hamlet’s inner turmoil is aptly performed, and though I question director Antoni Cimolino’s debauched interpretation of Ophelia’s final descent (in light of the martyred innocence ascribed to her character overall), Adrienne Gould performs this mismatch as well as possible.

Shakespeare anticipates any possible disappointment with the performance, though, when he writes for Hamlet:

[W]hat an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murther’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must (like a whore) unpack my heart with words

“Whoredom” is a curious state for Shakespeare. At times it’s used to refer to profiting monetarily from sexual acts (as we today understand the term), but more often meant in a metaphoric sense, applied to any act that casts paler shadows of our truest selves. So it is that the queen in this play, though she gains nothing financially from marrying her dead husband’s brother, is “whor’d” by him in Hamlet’s eyes, inasmuch as her second marriage is an inferior version of her first.

(This was hardly an era for divorce, after all, and Shakespeare doesn’t much hold for silver-haired female romance. To this end, he has Hamlet dismiss his mother’s reason for remarrying: “You cannot call it love; for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment”.)

Thus, when Hamlet compares “unpack[ing his] heart with words” to the actions of a whore, no financial compensation is on offer; words are simply regarded as an inferior medium with which to address his feelings. Inaction is, of course, at the core of this play: Hamlet’s inability to revenge himself directly upon his treacherous uncle, even when an experiment proves out the accusations of his father’s ghost, leads to a trail of unnecessary dead and the end of a Danish dynasty.

Nonetheless, that Shakespeare should indict words as a whorish medium for thought and feeling is a provocative stance for a playwright, and in typical Shakespearean fashion, Hamlet quickly contradicts this very comparison, remarking that words can nonetheless stir on better actions, for:

I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions

Goad appropriately speaks these lines with a significant pause after the phrase “sitting at a play”, so all in attendance can chuckle nervously at Shakespeare’s insinuation across the centuries, but Hamlet’s reversed opinion also unsettles on a deeper level. Shakespeare doesn’t give up the “whorish” nature of attempting to put words to feelings; he simply suggests here, through Hamlet, that the best “whores” can serve as mirrors, and in their artifice highlight powerful truths about ourselves.

This is not the only Shakespearean play in which words are used to illustrate how words themselves bear false (or at least inferior) witness to the heart. Indeed, the whole crisis in King Lear hinges upon the king’s over-reliance on verbal affirmation, and thus his inability to recognize one daughter’s refusal to flatter him as the sincerest form of love. Nor has such commentary gone unnoticed in other writings: In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, another figure gripped by existential crisis attends a “fantasia” attempting to convey King Lear through instrumental score. Dear Levin, however, is not convinced that the attempt to present one art form through another is ever useful, and as Tolstoy writes:

In the entr’acte Levin and Pestsov fell into an argument upon the merits and defects of music of the Wagner school. Levin maintained that the mistake of Wagner and all his followers lay in their trying to take music into the sphere of another art, just as poetry goes wrong when it tries to paint a face as the art of painting ought to do, and as an instance of this mistake he cited the sculptor who carved in marble certain poetic phantasms flitting round the figure of the poet on the pedestal. “These phantoms were so far from being phantoms that they were positively clinging on the ladder,” said Levin. The comparison pleased him, but he could not remember whether he had not used the same phrase before, and to Pestsov, too, and as he said it he felt confused.

Pestsov maintained that art is one, and that it can attain its highest manifestations only by conjunction with all kinds of art.

Shakespeare and Tolstoy are joined, then, in their ambivalence about the ability of art to convey anything with adequate fealty, whether it be another art form or matters of the heart itself. And Peter Mendelsund (author of What We See When We Read) complicates this notion of artistic fealty even further, by highlighting how little authors ever convey, even superficially, in the first place. When he writes of Anna Karenina, he notes that

You may feel intimately acquainted with a character, but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.

… Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail. We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.

Watching the above performance of Hamlet, I recalled with amusement that some regard a play to be lifeless as an art form unless performed, while others (like myself) prefer the written variant, with its endless gaps that open themselves to the imagination, over any concrete instance of production. I was thus disappointed with aspects of this play on the Stratford stage simply because it was on stage; because its wave-function had been collapsed to singular interpretations of specific lines.

Meanwhile, there are those for whom writing is inherently the lowest art form for genuine expression. A musician-friend, for instance, is a great admirer of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s definition of duende, and regards no other writer as even coming close to an articulation of that feeling and struggle, which I’ve been criticized for even using the word “ineffable” to try to describe. For this artist, song alone–and only the right kind of song–comes close to realizing that particular end.

As a highly verbal person, I am therefore often left at a bit of a loss: I long more days than not for a better mastery over language than is possible; for the ability to write and speak in such a way that the very struggle to connect becomes its own, perfectly understood connection to my fellow human beings.

I take some comfort, though, in knowing that some of the most significant writers in history were no strangers to the inadequacy of language–and yet this was the medium to which they still dedicated themselves. When Hamlet counsels an actor in the production he’s putting on to test Claudius, Shakespeare doesn’t incorporate anything to suggest absurdity in Hamlet’s words (as Shakespeare does with Polonius’s speeches to son, daughter, and Hamlet). But why should he, when Hamlet has already performed a bit of a play himself before this acting troupe, and so proven himself every bit a “whore” in turn, if only one of nobler birth?

Be not too tame neither [Hamlet says]; but let your own discretion be your / tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with / this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of / nature: for anything so overdone is [far] from the purpose of playing, / whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as / ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Perhaps we are all, in speaking, paler shadows of ourselves. Perhaps there are no words that can ever do full justice to our inclinations, and the lenses through which we each bear witness to the world. But surely there are greater and lesser approximations of our inner natures, and surely any attempt to seek out the former is better than no attempt at all. “To thine own self be true,” unwitting Polonius tells his son–and he needn’t be any less an artistic construct for this counsel to be good.

“O What A Day! What a Lovely Day!” Yes, It Surely Is.

There is a moment in Mad Max: Fury Road, as the War Rig tears through a treacherous mountain passage–driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), bearing its precious cargo of five escaped “breeders” in search of the “green place”, joined by one hell of a strange bedfellow in the titular Mad Max (Tom Hardy), and beset upon by re-amassing war parties and rock riders burned by a sour deal–when the music swells in time with the breakneck action, the fury of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his half-life war boy army bearing down on a crew that seems too fragile, too few, and too fragmented to survive.

It is not the first time the music rallies around the life-or-death mayhem of this epic, two-hour-long car chase–no, Immortan Joe’s war party even comes equipped with its own “sonic carmageddon” (to use Warner Bros’ phrase): a war vehicle piled high with speakers and drummers and a bungee-cord-suspended “doof warrior” up front, sightlessly stirring up troops from the Citadel, Gas Town, and the Bullet Farm by relentlessly riffing on his flame-thrower guitar.

But by the time the music swells again in that mountain pass, you either understand what this movie is–an opera; a ballet; a joyous rush of sound and visual spectacle set to the simplest, most intricate theme on Earth–or Mad Max is not for you.

Its context is straightforward, but also hauntingly vivid: A water-starved Australia yields a tyrant whose control of that resource allows him to treat everyone as property–to indoctrinate young men into a war-mongering death cult; to turn O-negatives into “blood bags”; to use women for milk, or else to birth him a “perfect” child. At the behest of Joe’s “wives”, our one-armed heroine, Furiosa, uses her powerful position as lead driver on an oil run to launch an escape attempt in search of her motherland. Half-lifer Nux (Nicholas Hault), a proud driver in his own right, almost misses the pursuit because of his declining health–but by strapping his “blood bag” (our nightmare-ridden hero!) to the front of his souped-up Chevy Coupe, he unwittingly thrusts himself and Mad Max into more than harm’s way.

Rarely do I get to say that a given film never misses a beat, but in the cascading aftermath of Furiosa’s actions, Fury Road routinely sets up what would become predictable stereotypes in other movies just to knock them down. Consequently, between all the unexpected “stillbirths” in theme as in plot, the range of ingenious approaches to car-on-car offensive and defensive manoeuvres, and the immense amount of real-life stunt-work (the pole-cats! the old lady biker gang! the doof warrior!), I have difficulty seeing how anyone would find this film dull.

Is the film violent? Of course! Are there explosions galore? Absolutely! And in director George Miller’s hands, it all just adds to one hell of a show. But the real surprise–for those whose interests might not be piqued by the automotive flourishes and the gun fights and the grotesqueries and the mass destruction alone–is also its humanity. Here is a film that sacrifices nothing, nothing in the way of human complexity to achieve its high-stakes sensationalism: not among the sex slaves, not among Immortan Joe’s adult children, not among the half-life war boys desperate to be witnessed as they attain Valhalla in combat.

To see a film that exalts large-scale violent struggle without diminishing the distinctness of human life therein leaves me stunned. I’m not just compelled to wonder how a film like this took so damned long to make; I’m also wondering how the hell I can go back to the usual cadence of action films from here on out.

Thankfully, I won’t have to worry about that issue too much until after at least my second viewing of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road–a film that takes the term “thrill ride” to new cinematic heights and leaves it there, well out of easy reach.

On Anger

A few weeks ago, I started writing poetry again–a reaction, I suspect, to some especially upsetting items in the news, and the almost unfathomable levels of suffering to which they alluded. At the same time, I began accepting the return of one very specific feeling for what it was–anger–though its specific causes were not clear. Or rather–there were too many for me to pin down.

Anger is a surprisingly complicated emotion. Its hot-blooded extremes can make it seem too overt for subtlety, but to scratch the surface of someone angry is to find myriad variations on a theme, including: inarticulate rage, disorientation, fear, despair, and an enabling or disabling awareness of injustice.

Some forms of anger, it therefore follows, are more constructive than others. The anger that freezes you is less useful than the anger that stirs you to action–unless that action might be ill-advised, in which case maybe a little immobility is superior, so long as one can articulate its existence and cause. Absent both the ability to act and the ability to recognize the issue, though, it’s difficult to see how anything but deeper emotional schism ensues. Certainly, I imagine many people live their lives this way, with their anger “bottled up”, but not without some secondary toll being taken on their health, relationships, or livelihoods.

From an artistic standpoint, Byron offers a perfect example of useful anger. After receiving a scathing review of a dull poetry collection, he was so agitated that neither a good dinner nor a bottle of claret could settle him. What did it take to restore his spirits? Why, writing a poetic invective, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which proved clever enough (in its passionate derision of major writers and critics) to win him new friends among their number, and from there on out, to begin a career of much stronger, more aesthetically distinct and cohesive work.

The ideal, in general, is for anger to give rise to greater action–but of course, this is difficult to accomplish if the seat of that anger is not readily apparent. For myself, I have difficulty even classifying the species of anger I currently feel–helplessness? rage? grief? moral fatigue?–and because it seems provoked by a wide range of day-to-day situations, I sometimes feel like the thread of its causality becomes harder and harder to source.

What becomes necessary, then, is to learn ways to sit with my anger, the way one might a child mid-tantrum, acknowledging its existence without necessarily trying to rationalize one and the same. What does it mean to be angry? How does anger inform my interactions with the world? Can I mitigate those interactions even without understanding why they happen in the first place?

It’s hard, when reflecting on this theme, to avoid the simple fact that anger was a staple in my childhood home: Anger at perceived betrayal. Anger at perceived personal failure, and the perceived failure of others. Anger at various societal slights, great and small alike. Anger as an excuse to lose control. Anger as a way of wielding power over other human beings.

I grew up fearing anger. My younger sisters and brother often embodied it outwardly, while my greatest anger turned inward–and still does, more often than not. In a bitterly ironic twist, I’m also fully aware that I provoke the most outward anger from others in my relentless fear that I’ve angered them.

Suffice it to say, then, that this legacy of anger is something my siblings and I still struggle with today, each in our own way–and as difficult as I find my own struggle, I feel especially for that of my sibling with three children: her ongoing fear of revisiting a difficult past we all shared upon the next generation.

I forward the following example just to illustrate how scattered and far-reaching the consequences of unchecked anger can be. My father is a human being whom I love very much, and whose humanity I feel I much better understand as an adult myself. I know just how much pain he was in while the kids were growing up, and I simply wish to illustrate, from personal experience, how strongly the phrase “hurt people hurt people” rings true.

To this end, in grade seven I brought home a permission slip to take violin class. Permission slips were usually a tense affair, as money was tight and my father vehemently opposed parents being asked to shoulder any trip-related costs, but this one simply required a signature. I thought it would be different.

My timing, however, was lousy; my father had had a bad day and he responded to my request with an anger that quickly bordered on incoherence: *He* hadn’t been able to take violin classes, his hands were too big for the instrument, and I was spoiled–so spoiled that I didn’t know the value of hard work and instead let people just exploit me for free labour. Didn’t I understand yet that people couldn’t be trusted, people would always screw you over, and the only one you could ever count on was yourself?

I had just come home from volunteering with a wonderful child, Latoya, whose overworked single mother couldn’t provide her with the advocacy she needed to get testing for the learning disability I quickly realized she had. Instead, this bright, inquisitive girl had to put up with her teacher *literally* asking if she was “stupid or something”, while I got to attend a gifted program in large part because my parents had pushed for it, and because other, more affluent parents made sure such programs existed for their special-needs children in the first place.

I was acutely aware, in other words, that the education system favoured students whose parents could advocate the loudest, and–as a white child in a low-income, high-recent-immigrant neighbourhood predominantly populated by persons with ties to the West Indies–I had also come to realize that ethnicity had a lot to do with expectations for “escaping” lower-income beginnings.

But I also understood that my father had been deeply hurt by something–or someone–and that this latest disappointment was just another in a line of hard knocks. I didn’t know what his disappointment was at the time, but it had already impacted me in the form of that speech, which I took to heart inasmuch as I realized right away that violin was off the table: too much risk of my father resenting me for doing something he hadn’t been able to do. I didn’t bring up the form again, and my father didn’t ask.

It took a very, very, very long time before I could share an accomplishment without my achievement becoming a reminder of perceived personal failure on my father’s part, and more often than not the lead-in to an angry speech about the world. But we’ve managed it, with a lot of effort and wry humour, and it’s now a great joy to be able to tell him when I’ve published a short story, say, or made concrete progress as a doctoral candidate.

I can’t ever forget that the original feedback loop existed, though–especially when, for all that my father loves me, anger is a legacy both he and my mother left me. Its patterns, its triggers, its capacity to spread indiscriminately, spring-boarding from one issue to the next: to recognize the existence of anger in me today is to remember how quickly a wildfire can arise from a single spark–and very much did, often, when I was growing up.

So–I know I’m angry. I know it’s an anger that flares up when I see the news, but also when I see the pettiness and careless harm people inflict upon one another every day. I’m angry with myself, too, because I’m not precisely where I’d like to be, but also don’t know precisely where I want to be. I’m angry because of all the harm that will never find easy resolution: all the waste in my own life, and all the hardship it’s caused others to date.

And yet–my anger brought me to write poetry again. My anger actually informs quite a few writing projects on the go right now, and my general desire to become a better writer–to relearn how to write in order to tell the stories I want to share. So while the sheer fact of my anger isn’t going to resolve everything, I do also see indications that it can be put to meaningful work.

The difficult trick (I’m finding) is not to rest on one’s laurels where this meaningful work is concerned. In that iconic upbraiding of mainstream media, Network (1976), Howard Beale famously declares, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” At first, it’s enough just to get his viewers to echo the sentiment–to shout out their windows that they’ve had enough of the system as it stands. But then this protest, too, becomes incorporated into the machine he’s trying to transform–a catch-phrase that instead improves network ratings, and no longer acts as impetus for genuine change. In this way, the movie offers a poignant reminder that any act of resistance can come to reinforce precisely that which one seeks to resist.

Often I seek to resist my anger, to pretend it doesn’t exist, because anger scares me. Anger should scare me, and plenty of other people besides, since anger can have rather deistic overtones: It can all too easily become a “higher power” to which we cede all capacity for calm and reflection in the moment, and which we generally employ as inner sanction for our worst knee-jerk and self- or communally-destructive behaviours.

But anger is also a tool, when used mindfully. It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable acknowledging that, in many ways, I am an angry person–but I am, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The real danger lies both in denying anger’s presence in my life, and in pretending that such acknowledgement is enough. So long as I do neither, though, I think it’s safe to say I have a good chance–and tremendous opportunities, more so than many earnestly striving people come before me–to use my anger well.

May your own emotions enable the very best in you all.

This Girl Sure Isn’t on Her Way to Grandma’s House

I watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on the heels of von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. I, the latter a laughably on-the-nose and just plain dull film from a director whose work I usually “enjoy” (if that’s ever the right word). So! My heart especially sang at the pitch-perfect aesthetics of seduction and destruction played out in Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 black-and-white Iranian number. After two misfires, I’d finally found a film with something interesting, if subtle, to say about sex and loneliness. (And no, Stellan Skarsgård’s fishing metaphors don’t count.)

To this end, A Girl is foremost a harmony of perfectly synched soundtrack, conscientious framing for juxtaposition and metaphor, and chiaroscuro, which together sustain a dreamy, lonely landscape pocked with oases of punk rock and the fickle promise of companionship. Like Let the Right One In, the film employs a lone female vampire, Sheila Vand, less to evoke jump scares than as part of a cast of strange and estranging figures, which here also include a junkie father, a lovelorn son, an entitled rich girl, a pimp in the classic order, an ageing prostitute, and a good little boy out too late with his skateboard.

The film essentially follows The Girl–a lonesome vampire in Bad City, unsurprisingly a hotbed of corruption–as she metes out idle fear and occasional justice in the streets. The film’s strength, however, comes from exploring predation in a wide variety of forms, and with considerable nuance. Early on, we meet a man whose addiction has made easy prey of him, and the son who becomes prey to his father’s dealer in turn. In a city where bodies are dumped in a common ravine, a woman’s sexual exploitation might seem mundane, but whenever we’re given images of power clearly aligned with one party, there always follows a doubling of these images in scenes where the tables are turned.

As the film negotiates its central romance, between The Girl and Arash (Arash Marandi), this negotiation of power becomes especially delicate. When they first meet, Arash is fresh from a costume party–“I’m Dracula,” he says, stoned out of his gourd, “but I won’t hurt you.” Vand’s subsequent gaze contains multitudes; she follows him along the sidewalk, as she has so many others to dire ends, but in the apartment where she takes him, he advances on her in a strong moment for the soundtrack.

Indeed, music is critical in this film; though characters come and go and dialogue is scarce, both its lonesome women shine when they dance, and The Girl’s apartment is enlivened by band posters. Moreover, every major beat in this film is accompanied by song, including Arash’s eventual discovery of something terrible involving The Girl–though in this, the film also takes after Let the Right One In, ultimately prioritizing companionship over most everything else in a difficult, lonely world.

The consequence is a film on the one hand stylistically commanding–beautiful on both audio and visual accords–but on the other hand, quite understated. There is no dramatic standoff, no aggressively escalating death count, so for all intents and purposes, The Girl’s vampirism becomes just one part of the character the director wants to show us: a woman with an inner life, as well as a range of outer ones. In its fundamental humanity, then, A Girl amply succeeds, and leaves me more than itching for Amirpour’s next, due out in 2016.

La petite mort: It Follows (from Sex, from Adulthood)

I have to admit, I had difficulty watching director David Robert Mitchell’s much acclaimed It Follows. The film offers many arrestingly beautiful compositions, but also spends an inordinate amount of time on rough foliage as seen from below. I enjoyed the soundtrack, but felt that it didn’t always match this low-budget indie film’s content. Many set design elements cohesively constructed a dreamy, teenaged-wasteland aesthetic, but I found most of the settings underused. The narrative transitions were also often stiff or needlessly protracted, which in turn left me feeling strung along by an unreliable narrator, always knowing more than he’s showing.

Similarly, I enjoyed the concept of the film: the idea of an entity that slowly, relentlessly follows someone under multiple guises until the pursued sleeps with someone else (and thus passes the STI demon on, though this only works if the newly pursued doesn’t get caught). However, I kept getting thrown by the changing monster mechanics: the “It” sometimes quick to catch up with its prey, but at other times conveniently delayed for days; sometimes stymied by doors (never windows) but wielding a force capable of knocking people through the air; and sometimes just abandoning its established passive style to suit the film’s need for more action.

These inconsistencies were difficult to align with a film that adheres to real-world physics where human reactions and consequences are concerned, yet which also plainly wants to advance a more symbolic reading of events as they transpire. Is this a film about the ramifications of having sex, as the means by which this curse is passed on suggests? Not really, because even though our protagonist treats sex with hesitation at the outset, her life-transforming encounter isn’t actually her first time at the rodeo.

Is it a film, then, about the disappointment of growing up, as suggested by speeches about the broken promise of adult freedom and being envious of small children? Maybe. Maybe “It” is the spectre of death that awaits us all, or at least the “little death” that dogs our realization that even getting what we always wanted is not as earth-shattering as we might once have dreamed. If so, it’s a wobbly metaphor: Some people in this film get brutally murdered by that realization, and only so long as such terror is passed on or evaded by its latest victim can the rest of the afflicted find peace.

I’m torn, then, on the film as a whole. It has its technical weaknesses (and strengths, granted), but on this thematic level–the question of whether It Follows forwards a nihilistic view on life, or simply an elegy for lost youth–I still find myself haunted by what I’ve seen. I’m especially struck by how much restraint is shown in the script: We even have one character reading twice from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on her clamshell e-reader, as if to drive home the film’s overall fixation on the horror of suffering and one’s eventual loss of self–but far from these scenes proving abrasive, the severity of the excerpted text is undercut both times by its young reader’s goofy, unassuming mannerisms.

As a horror movie, too, It Follows definitely pulled off a few jump scares, and although I was exasperated by certain characters’ poor decisions and our camera’s selectivity at key points, the film undoubtedly built tension. Moreover, our monster works well even when we’re not allowed to see “It” (that is, when we’re not cinematically aligned with the protagonist). In fact, these empty spaces might even be better for sheer dread-value than the creepy figures we later see, because It Follows bears closest resemblance to its schlocky slasher forefathers when we’re watching hyper-sexualized dead women, old women, distended men, and Gollum-esque children lurch in silence toward our protagonist.

Is It Follows worth seeing, then? I’d say it’s a fun little experiment with some haunting and memorable visual choices. But as much as I’m left musing over ideas of loss and disaffected youth in its wake, I’m already starting to feel like this film is another Virgin Suicides: a work that wants you to believe that something deep and ineffable has just transpired, but which doesn’t do nearly as much of the work as promised to get you even halfway there.

On Re-Learning How to Write, How to Think, How to Be

At one of my workplaces, a client routinely presents the staff with unsolicited “important reading material”. These long, formal letters, addressed to third parties but cc’d for our attention, implicate major news events and miscellaneous personal encounters in a vast campaign of human rights violations visited upon the author over the last quarter century. By her own admission in these widely disseminated letters, the author was diagnosed at the outset of this campaign with paranoid schizophrenia, removed from her position, placed on disability, and hospitalized–all actions that confirmed for her precisely how far major institutions were willing to go to silence her over the data she was gathering on government schemes.

As one might surmise, I don’t recycle these letters immediately, though there is a certain kindness to just politely accepting and then disposing of such troubled material. I don’t skim through these materials to scoff at the author, though. Rather, I even make the mentally precarious choice of going through some of these letters with a highlighter, noting key passages and turns of phrase, before putting them all to rest.

Now, some might say that’s a writer’s instinct–a fascination with the rhetoric and vernacular of a person so intent on rationalizing the irrational, on writing and rewriting their personal narrative in every possible light in order to make sense of it all. This would, however, be a superficial read: If anything, these letters–in their eloquence, precision, and overall cohesion–blur the line between “madness” and the compulsion experienced by many writers considered “sane”–the drive, that is, to narrate trauma (personal, societal, environmental) into something restorative, something clarifying and coherent and maybe even edifying.

In other words, I actually find this author to be an intelligent, well-read person; between wild assertions about vast conspiracies, she moves effortlessly from historical to philosophical to literary to academic reference–a wealth of critical knowledge in this case turned horribly against her ability to perceive excessive pattern recognition for what it truly is. If only for this reason, then, I find something in her mental health struggle–relentless, myopic, and with such an acute awareness of women’s history (especially regarding institutionalization as a means of social control)–that resonates well beyond the extreme conclusions she draws about the world around her.

(And yes, her conclusions are extreme, including the existence of a secret UN code conveyed by her dentist, the pain in her teeth affirming Canada’s complicity in global human rights violations; a system of signals that makes a past employer culpable in the mass murder of young women; speeches by past PMs meant to impart coded awareness of the vendetta against her; a university plot to partner her children with entirely the wrong sort of people, making for mediocre marriages and impacting the wellbeing of her grandchildren; covert meetings with UN representatives at her convenience store; and a secret text left by a famous philosopher’s family for her alone to find and read.)

Indeed, the overall thrust of her argument is belief in a coherent, far-reaching order to the universe. It’s an order working against her, granted; one at every turn striving to suppress her work, isolate her from her communities, and otherwise besmirch her good name with mental health labels–but an order just the same. And so she reacts to it by ordering her thoughts as systematically as she can–suggesting, perhaps, a persisting confidence that, even if the world is out to get her, it is doing so through a level of organization that can still be defeated by organization–that is, the correct ordering of words and narrative constructs–in turn.

In reading her work, then–and I call it “work” because the writing, tragically, is every bit as methodical and rife with citation as any academic article I’ve read as of late; a testament to a brilliant mind trapped too far down the rabbit hole of theoretical constructs I encounter in my own studies–I’m left with two reactions. The first is a sense of there but for the brain’s diverse neural quirks go I, while the second is the emergence of troubling questions: What narrative loops might I be trapped in, likewise without realizing it, having relied too long on certain systems of thought? Where might I be spinning my wheels in place, under the misguided belief that, with enough retelling of certain stories in new contexts, the truth will eventually out?

The Stories I Tell

I find myself ruminating on the folly of doing the same thing over and over, either on compulsive autopilot or out of the genuine belief that the result is sure to be different next time, or the time after that, or the time after that, because in the last two weeks I have had to come to terms with the fact that my writing is simply not up to snuff. Put a gentler, more bureaucratic way: I have insufficiently grown to meet the evolving demands of my stories–whether they be academic, fictional, or personal.

For the purpose of successfully conveying my dissertation research to my committee, I thus have to re-learn how to write academic work. For the purpose of doing right by the ideas I want to wrangle with in fiction, I likewise have to re-learn how to write with an attention to detail and character that is most certainly not lacking in my day-to-day experience of the world.

But above all else, for the purpose of being simpatico with the forms in which I’m writing, I need to re-learn which stories are the stories I want to tell, which stories are worth telling, and which stories are not, in some sense, simply acts of self-erasure.

This should be easier than it seems, especially when one of my jobs–at a local bookstore–offers incessant reminders that, in the long run, nobody else is really going to care; in the long run, the world is full-to-bursting with excellent and mediocre writers alike, with so many from each category achieving their moment in the spotlight and then finding themselves remaindered, forgotten, past their prime. But somehow the reminder that I am, ultimately, writing only for myself makes this situation harder–because what I have come to realize is that there is something worse than aimlessness in what I write: There is cowardice, and a refusal to be fully present in my own stories, my own texts.

Indeed, Mark Doty’s words, which have followed me through many of my greatest hardships, seem indelibly writ upon the bone at times like this–“We all have reasons / for moving. / I move / to keep things whole.” And to be fair, I have as of late tried to confront this cowardice directly, to centre it in the stories I tell. But there is something about even this effort that only exacerbates the problem: Is it to cowardice and absence that I really want to dedicate my time and literary output?

As a teen and very young adult, I focussed on sincerity in my poetry–openness seeming fundamental to good work. Whether that was wise or misguided, in fiction it never really translated; the aversion to being seen as “writing from life”, when I so dreaded the thought of being reduced to my personal struggles, yielded minimalist prose. I had my Carver period without ever quite grasping the nuances of Wolff or Rash, followed by a love of Iris Murdoch that often matched lean prose with pointed moral indictments of characters who, simply by struggling to be good, thought that they were good. (Thank goodness I hadn’t read any George Eliot at that time, or the novel I wrote then, about a set of characters with competing self-delusions, would have been an even worse screed against human folly.)

I knew neither style would “sell” (not in my hands, at least), but the more damning conceit, really, is that I continued submitting such work even as I read plenty of contemporary fiction and disliked most of it. I especially hated the telegraphing flashbacks that made up the bulk of contemporary short fiction, character motivations spelled out in lush, self-centred sentences instead of illustrated through forward momentum. I wanted stories that followed seamlessly from a given thesis, such that all ensuing events were simply compelled towards an inevitable end. I even tried to sell a novel written in such a sparse register (a terrible attempt to merge my aesthetics with Canadiana, in the form of a Northern Ontario bildungsroman that treats its protagonist harshly for her naive expectations of life) and only after over fifteen literary agents didn’t even deign to reject the work did it strike me that I needed to master short stories first.

So I wrote plenty of short stories, in a wide range of forms, but only made progress with science fiction. Even then, I have been mindful of my slings and arrows therein: I’d get accepted somewhere, and then find it even harder to submit to that place again, gripped with a cold-sweated conviction that the first acceptance was just a fluke, and I’d soon enough be found out for the hack that I was. (And this, despite the fact that I have full enthusiasm even for negative reviews, which is most of what I’ve had to date; I welcome the opportunity they provide for self-reflection and improvement, so the disconnect is puzzling.)

Regardless, I’ve had plenty of silly periods. I once staunchly declared a commitment to mediocrity on the path to eventual improvement (and if not for this, granted, likely wouldn’t have submitted as much work in the first place). I also openly gave up submitting literary/mainstream/general fiction a couple years ago, which doesn’t at all account for the (futile) fact that I have literary/mainstream/general fiction in submission queues today.

And then there were times when fiction was painful–when the very idea of writing was intolerable, ill as I was, or when the only writing I could do focussed on a limited range of emotions and experiences, particularly around self-erasure. Those are sad times to reflect upon, even as some of the work I wrote therein did in fact sell. However, I was treading water myself–at best–and as such have an excuse for creative stagnation then.

I don’t want to be treading water anymore, though. I need to keep growing, and that requires taking stock of the storytelling routines I’ve clung to for so long. For three years, for instance, I worked on a story about fence-sitting, and with it, the trouble with storytelling itself. In part, I knew all along that this intended novel was an indictment of myself, and uneasily noted the number of short stories written in the same time period that, in one way, shape, or form, negotiated similar themes of passivity, indecision, cowardice, and misdirected energy.

Recently, I had to let that story go–its protagonist, always intentionally passive, ultimately too passive, in too didactic a narrative, for the piece to warrant further investment of time and energy. It’s a loss, to put aside a world in which one has dwelled for so long, but I keep hoping I can make it constructive in the end–by recognizing what the story’s failure is telling me.

What Things Might Come

Frozen, afraid to act, afraid to move forward in case my moving forward causes harm: the recapitulation in fiction of my own follies, while not surprising, is certainly a bit difficult to accept–not least because self-awareness on this accord poses difficult, but obligatory questions about next steps. Specifically:

Do I continue writing the stories that are most familiar to me–and yet also, the most easily suffocated (stylistically, structurally) by my desire to keep up a wall between myself and my fictions?

Or do I learn to write stories that depict an approach to life entirely unlike (and surely better than) the one I know best?

This second option raises its own questions of cause and effect: Can I write such stories–genuinely, compellingly–without first re-learning how to be? Or would one act (gradually) come to inform the other? Over time, with considerable commitment, could the writing of such stories effect changes in my own approach to life?

No, I don’t ask such questions imagining a saccharine story of personal transformation through dedication to more uplifting fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact: I am a creature of Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy; human frailty, madness, eccentricity, and survivable (if not surmountable) failure are all more kindred to me. And so it simply frustrates me that, for all the intimacy with which I’ve known these gradations of the human experience, I haven’t yet learned how to write on them–in any form–with the honesty, compassion, and fullness of feeling they all deserve.

But at least I know now what I do not know. And difficult as I know this next leg of the journey will be–breaking down all my familiar archetypal turns, all my surefire narrative crutches, and allowing vulnerability and compassion (not criticism) to coexist on the page–I am ready to learn.

I have to hope that will be enough.